‘Dawnbreaker’ Modernizes Superman in Ways We’ve Rarely Seen

Author: Matt de la Pena / Publisher: Random House

The greatest strength of the DC Universe is having over eighty years of storytelling and world-building to lean back on for recognition and canon. That very same resume can make for a huge disadvantage when you’re trying to create a new story with these almost century-old characters. DC Icons is still taking a stab at it though with these series of YA novels, mostly showing the most iconic heroes in their super-infancy (there are novels for Batman, Catwoman and Wonder Woman, the last of which we reviewed). While there are an infinite number of Batman projects across comics, movies, tv shows, etc., the most recognizable hero in all of comics is still Superman. As any Superman writer will tell you, there’s a huge challenge in writing the most powerful comic book hero and creating real tension with an original story. Matt de la Peña manages this by stripping Kal El down to his most basic, human-like impulses, and weaves a story fitting of El family crest.

Will Eventually Be Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

We meet “Clark” in his senior year at Smallville High, and the struggle for him is already too real. He’s always had powers and has been aware he was different than people, but the powers themselves have started to manifest in ways that are not explainable, enough that he and the Kents know that he must hide his powers. This is a nice sweet spot to start Clark’s story. We’re past the weird and messy times of when puberty might take place but have all the youthful and scary moments of Clark navigating the newness of his body and its capabilities. De la Peña does a great job of giving us a well-rounded and conflicted Clark. One who knows he can’t flex his powers in front of anyone, including his best friend Lana, but also throws caution to the wind when it someone is in danger.

That recklessness is part of what makes Clark’s glow up so interesting. Clark’s aim is always to help, but he doesn’t always. Because he doesn’t have a grip on his powers, pushing someone out of the way of a truck might mean that he dislocates their shoulder in the process. Watching that struggle and growing awareness grounds Clark in refreshing ways. There’s no doubt he’s the good guy (the best guy), but the journey to his contribution being a net good takes time to develop.

Big Thangs Poppin’ in Smallville

The story that de la Peña weaves could only happen in Smallville and puts Superman dead in the middle of a familiar social climate that everyone should be familiar with in 2019. Dawnbreaker is just as much a story about immigration as it is about a coming of age superhero. This modern Smallville is dealing with immigration, racism in the form of local citizens and proposed legislation. When Clark proclaims that a Stop and Search time of bill will never pass in Smallville, we as the reader know that Clark’s naivety can come from both his idealistic youth and the often tread adage of “this is not what America is about.” When…it absolutely is what America is about. This begins to strip away from Clark as the story progresses, as Clark remains hopeful of people but knows that his action is necessary to keep people honest.

This is a Smallville with a previously unrecognizable demographic. We are given a much more diverse landscape, especially with more Latinx representation than any Smallville I can recall. Clark’s compassion is seen in the way he interacts with the Mexican population, including a new love interest that I would love to see make its way into other Superman media. But this is Superman and we have some old-faithfuls to help root a Superman story. As the most by the book portrayal of Lana Lang is ever present throughout, we get some varied versions of the Kents and a surprise turn of Lex Luthor playing a prominent role in the story. Don’t worry, it’s definitely same ole Lex. But the positioning of “Big City Metropolis Lex who is a little too old to hang around high school kids” is a pretty great characterization, the likes of which haven’t really been seen since the Smallville television show.

Heroes Journey

In what is an interesting plot point, we begin the story with Clark knowing he is different but none of the how’s or why’s. Mostly because his parents haven’t told him how he got there. The discovery and revelation is done well and helps nail home Clark’s empathy of the immigration challenges in his town. Clark is an outsider that fears who will find out more about him in the way that the undocumented in Smallville do. What keeps the subject matter or its handling from becoming trite is in the way Clark recognizes his privilege in his relationship to those that are the most vulnerable. Eventually, Clark has to make a decision to embrace who he is knowing it is to acknowledge he can never again be who he once was. It’s a balancing act that de la Peña pulls off well from start to finish of this novel.

But Does It Fly?

Overall, with Superman being as well-worn a territory as comic book heroes can get, de la Peña still manages to pull off an original story, grounded in a very current climate, and with our favorite alien feeling new-ish and still familiar. The core principles of what make Superman are very much there, but the environment is different than what we are used to. And the way Clark responds makes all the difference. This is a worthy entry into the Superman lore and one that will hopefully spin some of the new characteristics into other Superman canon.

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